Brenden Fraser has been in the news a lot lately. Having been cast in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon” alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. I guess he was trending, or however that works, enough that a tweet popped up in my feed that went something like “I guess y’all really loved George of the Jungle.” WRONG sir, we all loved The Mummy.
The Mummy is nominally a remake of the 1932 Universal Monster movie of the same name. Rather than updating the spookiness of the original horror movie, director Stephen Sommers made an Indiana Jones riff, with two-fisted American hero Rick O’Connell (Fraser) escorting British academic Evy Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) on a rousing adventure to the lost city of Hamunaptra where they raise an evil (though pretty sympathetic if you think about the plot for a minute) mummy from the dead. We will not be discussing the 2017 Tom Cruise movie of the same name, now, or ever.
If this blog post inspires you to rewatch the film be warned: it shows it’s age. It’s not so much that there are jokes that wouldn’t fly today or unwatchable CGI (though it has both) as it is an overarching old fashioned rhythm and sensibility. I feel myself becoming a mummy describing a 90’s movie as “old fashioned,” but action film was forever changed the very year the Mummy came out with the one-two punch of the Matrix and Star Wars Episode I. (Drink every time we mention Star Wars on this blog.) The Mummy made a lot of money, it was the 8th highest grossing movie of that landmark year, and it’s sequel made even more. But movies like this with their horse tricks and western-style shootouts never really came back.
Warts and all, though, this is a movie that I watched about 100 times when I was 12, and I can still have fun with it today. On my most recent rewatch I lamented the loss of the “hard PG-13” movie. No shade to Marvel and Star Wars fans, but the fact is that Disney is sanding the rough edges off our Blockbusters. I can’t remember the last time I saw a non-horror movie where, say, a guy could get his eyes and tongue ripped out by a monster, survive, and then still wind up having all the fluids sucked out of his body later when said monster comes back to finish the job. And isn’t that a shame? I’d like some movies that will give my kid nightmares when he’s a tween that are less than 20 years old.
I could write a year’s worth of blogs about the Mummy from a filmic perspective, but I’ve been told this blog is about museums. Well we’re in luck! A museum is one of the major settings in the movie, and the female lead is a bonafide Museum Nerd. Let’s take a look at what the movie tells us about museums, and the creatures (nerds) who haunt them.
The Mummy falls squarely in line with the Indiana Jones films, and features most of the tropes discussed in Blockbusters Part III. We’ve got a lot of white people heading out into the Egyptian desert looking for relics. Some are looking for gold, some for glory, and some are hoping to put stuff in a museum. As Kate discussed last week, museums in this world are very active places. The artifacts they hold can raise the dead, and kill them again. The Mummy even pushes this trope into a character. Evy’s museum director is revealed to be part of an ancient brotherhood attempting to protect the world from the Mummy’s resurrection. Unfortunately, their blood oaths are no match for the tenacity of the museum nerd.
Our heroine Evelyn “Evy” Carnahan is introduced shelving books in the library of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities (a real place wikipedia tells me!) She promptly destroys said library, because clumsiness resulting in destruction is cute. In addition to condemning the museum’s one unpaid intern to hours of work setting shelves back up, Evy is wholly to blame for the Mummy’s resurrection, when she reads from the book of the dead, which she didn’t even find. In her defense, she is also responsible for the Mummy’s defeat (after a bunch of people get killed, and the plagues return, and a bunch of people get turned into zombies. Hey what happens to the zombies in this movie? Are they ok eventually?)
I’m not a museum nerd, but there’s a lot about Evy that feels true to me as the brother of a museum nerd. After being chewed out by her director for destroying the library, she lists off her impressive credentials in response to the question “why do I put up with you?” I imagine many of those reading this blog have found themselves insisting (mostly to yourselves) that you don’t have to take this, that you could find another job with your resume, that you don’t need to take this from this jerk, having been put on the spot for a minor mistake. (Ok, she destroys the whole library which maybe isn’t a minor mistake. She also still reminds her director that she is “the only person in a thousand miles who can properly catalog a library” which, I maybe wouldn’t have mentioned at this exact moment.)
Evy also longs to join the “Bembridge Scholars” (which isn’t really a real thing but a perfect fill-in for any of the associations or Ivy League programs coveted by museum nerds/academics) but has been turned down more than once. The sting of not getting into that program you wanted is endemic to academic nerds of all stripes. There’s a hint of glass ceiling in the subtext here as well, as the real Bembridge school was a boys only school. However ,this proves to be something this particular movie has no time to tease out in between punches.
One notable difference from Indiana Jones is that this movie essentially splits Indy into two characters. Rick does the punchin’ and Evy does the readin’. There’s a superman-like element to Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Jones, as he transforms from a mild-mannered, bespectacled college professor to the fedora wearing Nazi puncher. With Evy we get, an egghead thru and thru. She is very much the character Kate was thinking of when talking about the sorts of museum nerds that show up in movies in the smash hit Museum Nerds, Codified post (38 upvotes on Reddit!) She’s someone who is clearly more comfortable around books than people, gets flustered easily, and wears glasses. (Which of course she eventually doesn’t need. The worst movie trope. BUT there is a different character who REALLY needs his glasses and dies when he loses them, so shout out to this franchise for keeping it real.)
As I reviewed the Evy scenes in the Mummy, I was surprised to find that she is actually not really a “this belongs in a museum!” character. She works in a museum, but that’s not really why she’s doing all this. She’s motivated by the history and the scholarship all by itself. She wishes she could get into the Bembridge school, but the goal there seems to be to learn more, not to be a member of an exclusive club. She describes finding the golden book of Amun-Ra as a life’s pursuit, is visibly awed when stepping in a room no one has been in for 3000 years, and gets so sucked into translating hieroglyphs that she ignores a ravening hoard of zombies. There’s a monologue about how she is half-Egyptian, and how the research connects her to her parents, but the real core of the character is the last line of that speech: “I am proud of what I am. I. Am. A Librarian.” (Editor’s note from Kate: I know, guys. Librarians and Museum Nerds are not one in the same. She works in a museum. Feel free to fight us.) Some of this stuff is nerd tropes, and some of it is Evy as the source of exposition in the movie. But Rachel Weisz is a good enough actress that she sells it as genuine enthusiasm.
Ultimately I think the character reflects well on the nerds. I don’t know that many people in real life, museum nerds or no, who actually do their job “for the glory.” I can’t imagine most people get into museum work thinking they’ll make millions. I do know a lot of people who went to college, or dove into some other subculture later in life because they are interested in that thing.
Whether that’s classical arts, film, fishing or whatever, people do things they love. We spend a lot of time getting told we’re supposed to do these things to make other people money, under the guise of making ourselves money. Evy is a rare example of a character who is just, like, really into a thing. And that makes all the shouting matches with your director worth it. Right?